Thursday, October 27, 2005

Interview with Francis Ellen

Francis Ellen has been mentioned on this blog a few times, not least in his appearances as a commenter: e.g. in relation to my post of 25 October. He is certainly a successful author in my estimation, and in that of many others. And, although there are those who think I should not be encouraging anyone to write novels (they really don't need any encouragement and it will only end in tears), I think we can reasonably regard Francis as an example to us all.

In his most recent comment, Francis mentioned an interview with him on the Screenbiz web site, so I went to investigate. I wasn't expecting all that much, frankly, but in the event I was highly impressed.

I don't agree with all of Francis's ideas but his interview is absolutely crammed with valuable observations about the writer's lot. He clearly has a very low opinion of front-line publishers -- even lower than mine -- and he is quite sure that things are going to change. So am I. I would say that Francis's interview is essential reading for anyone who is contemplating getting involved in the book world; and even more essential for anyone who is struggling with the first, or twenty-first, novel.

The bit which caught my eye is Francis's suggestion that self-published writers should not think of themselves as self-published but as independent; as in, independent film-maker, or independent record company. This is the smartest piece of thinking I've come across in a long time.

If you never click on any other link from this blog, click on the one to the interview with Francis Ellen. And, while we're about it, here's a link to his novel The Samplist on Or, if you prefer, you can go to Francis's publishing site and read more about the book first.


pundy said...

You're right - that's a brilliant interview with Francis Ellen. His worm's-eye view of the way the new technology is going to change the face of publishing is truly exciting. It's not going to be easy tho' - as I've already discovered.

Peter L. Winkler said...

Really, your blog is getting to read like a shill for self-published authors.

I keep giving the benefit of the doubt to self-published writers and continue to be disappointed. First I read Ellen's interview, then I went to his web site and tried to read the sample. I never finshed it.

Don't present readers with Chapter 26 as the sample. Who are these characters and what is the overall context of the story? Without knowing who the characters are or what they are doing, the chapter made no sense, and frankly, what I read wasn't very engaging.

I'm getting rather tired of reading interviews or puff pieces about the occasional self-published writer who has managed to get their book some attention who goes on and on about how publishers make "arbitrary" decisions and how many agents or publishers turned down Harry Potter. Maybe they were right to, since I've heard plenty of opinions voiced that Rowling's not a very good writer.

The fact is that Rowling did get published and 20 rejections is not that large a number to have to suffer for the one acceptance.

I have yet hear a successful writer conclude that all publishing decisions are arbitrary, but some variation on that theme pops up in nearly every interview or blog posting I've read from self-published writers.

Traditional publishers may publish many books that you or I don't like, but they have also published the books that most readers consider good.I have yet to read one good self-published book that I would pay money for. What does that say about who is right?

Francis Ellen is a diligent, clever entrepreneur in getting some attention for his book from the mainstream review organs. But his entrepreneurial talent should not be confused with writing ability.

Self-published writers (new word:autowriters?) have the burden of proving that good works are escaping the purvue of traditional publishers. From the samples of a number of self-published books I've read so far, they haven't met that burden.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. Show mw one really good self-published book and I'll change my mind.

And a note to self-published writers who are trying to invent labels for themselves that remove the vanity stigma. Analogizing yourself to indpendent filmmakers won't do. Making a decent low budget film takes several hundred thousand dollars at the very least and then you try to get a distributor. In order to get your film chosen for Sundance you need the financial resources to hire experienced people who can get your film noticed and then to try to snag the all imortant distribution deal. Can anyone name one film that was made and that has been received any positive attention by bypassing the traditional marketing/distribution channels?

Anonymous said...

Oh God. In seeking to respond not to the GOB’s entry but to a comment thereon (Peter Winkler, above) I crave our host’s indulgence.

Now since my intention is to blow PW’s head off his shoulders (or out of his fundament, or wherever he keeps it) let me begin by agreeing with him on two points. First, I don’t think that Chapter 26 is the best taster for Francis Ellen to have put on his website: the opening pages would have been fine. Second, and begging the GOB’s pardon, PW is quite right in rubbishing the use of a euphemism to sugar the self-publishing pill. For a self-publisher to call himself an independent writer is much the same as for a lavatory cleaner to call himself a hygienist.

But let’s cut to the chase. Believe me, 99.99% of what lands on publishers’ slush piles (which is where almost all self-published work starts) is garbage. I know, because I’ve looked. In fact, The Samplist is the first worthwhile self-published novel I’ve ever seen. Which is why I feel so strongly about it.

The problem is this. Fiction slush piles (non-fiction is slightly different) have now grown so huge that some publishers no longer accept unsolicited and unagented submissions at all, while the rest give them no serious consideration. The inevitable result is that a tiny baby is thrown out in an ocean of bathwater.

But the system is not foolproof, and very occasionally, a baby survives. To the consternation, it seems, of PW. Is he serious in suggesting that those publishers who rejected Harry Potter were right to do so? Give them another chance and just see if they think they were right. Publishing is about money, PW. I thought everybody knew that. (But then again, I’m just an embittered loser.)

And here’s a cracker: ‘I have yet [to] hear a successful writer conclude that all publishing decisions are arbitrary.’ Wow! Who’d’ve thought it? I’ve yet to hear a turkey conclude that Christmas is fun. So what?

There’s so much more that I could say, but I’ll conclude simply by picking up the gauntlet thrown down by PW towards the end of his rant. He wants to be shown one really good self-published book. Well, try The Samplist by Francis Ellen, published by Ronak in paperback at £10.99 in the UK, and $19.95 in the US.

And if you want to know why I recommend it so warmly, have a look at the
that I posted on the GOB some time back.

Peter L. Winkler said...

Dear Iain:

Perhaps your ammunition is deficient, as my head remains seated firmly on my neck.

After 40 years of fighting crippling arthritis, Sjogren's Syndrome and other afflictions, it will take more than your post to discomfort me.

“Fiction slush piles (non-fiction is slightly different) have now grown so huge that some publishers no longer accept unsolicited and unagented submissions at all, while the rest give them no serious consideration."

Publishers used to have in-house readers on staff. They were happy to let agents assume that function. Get an agent. It's not that hard. I had two of them.

"I’ll conclude simply by picking up the gauntlet thrown down by PW towards the end of his rant. He wants to be shown one really good self-published book. Well, try "/* by Francis Ellen.”

Why is it that every post that doesn't merely equal singing "Put On A Happy Face" at the top of one's lungs is always labeled a "rant?"

I gave Francis Ellen a chance on his own terms. He chose the sample that he feels represents his novel. I read it. I found it lacking. Perhaps there are better chapters he could have chosen.

I am surrounded by many good (at least by reputation) books that I haven't even gotten around to reading yet. When and if I can even get off my sick bed, I think I'll read one.

My time isn't infinite. I gave Mr. Ellen a fair chance.

And saying that you are going to blow someone's head off is not conducive to anything more than a flame war.

Anonymous said...

Peter, we all have different tastes. That The Samplist should somehow constitute the final nail in the coffin for Independent Novelists (yes, I’ll get to that later) is ludicrous:

Walt Whitman
John Grisham
William Blake
Robbie Burns
Edgar Rice Burroughs
Samuel (Mark Twain) Clemens
Alexander Dumas
Zane Grey
James Joyce
Rudyard Kipling
D.H. Lawrence
Edgar Allen Poe
George Bernard Shaw
Henry David Thoreau
Virginia Woolf
Margaret Atwood
Tom Clancy

Anyone considering trying to ‘get published’ might want to consider these matters carefully. Your post is indicative of the general ‘attitude’ of the publishing world. Like you, people who work for publishing houses seem to believe that their ‘taste’ is important in some way. I expect it seems self-evident; anyone who sells books should know something about books, no?

Not necessarily. Believing one knows what is good or bad can be a handicap in trying to predict market behaviour. It leads to ‘the analyst’ (in this case an editor or reader) superimposing their own belief systems onto ‘the market’. When an editor publishes a book they are trading a market and people trade markets with their belief systems. The successful trader (and there are few) is the trader who can analyse the market without reference to their own beliefs and then time the market whilst endeavouring to skew the odds in their favour (in publishing this might constitute spending money on advertising; calling in favours from media types, blowing celebrities, etc.). In layman’s terms; a trader who bought internet stocks (despite the knowledge that it was fueled by complete nincompoopery) but managed a successful exit strategy would be analogous to the editor who published perhaps Geoffrey Archer, or the impresario who backed The Spice Girls, or perhaps, in the future, the major house that eventually publishes The Samplist. All of the above are, of course, complete shit but there is a market for them nonetheless.

None of this should have anything at all to do with opinion. It’s hard to find books that sell so publishers ‘pretend’ they’re doing that instead and as long as they get lucky once in a while all is well. But that’s because the market has been extremely easy for the publisher (despite their constant complaints). I’m here to tell them that the market is about to get much more difficult for them. But they probably won’t listen; many will be busy with book launchings or celebrity sniffings, and listening to a nobody who can’t even write is not a priority.

Let’s look at the slush pile first. Publishers who are enabled to actually publish do not consider the slush pile (it being full of slush and all) so multi-billion dollar companies have a few spotty kids to find all the ‘Black Swans’. If an editor should ever ‘get behind’ some slush their career will almost certainly be under intense scrutiny for doing so. Thus, both the kowtowed Slush Novelist and the Independent Novelist looking for a ‘pickup’ are in for, at the very least, a long wait.

Forget the slush pile. Forget ‘encouraging’ letters. Forget requests to read. If you get published it is because you have a relationship with a publisher. You cited JK Rowling as an example of how the system ‘works’. Perhaps she’ll arrive on Michael’s wonderful blog and put us both straight but my impressions were that her sister ‘knew’ a small publisher who later sold it to a ‘big’ publisher and there were plenty of opportunities along the way for the wondrous and quite obviously wonderful Harry to get left in a bedroom drawer. But you suggest that somehow it would have been all right in the end no matter what; it was written? Pure determinism: that the universe is rational and efficient and the cream always rises?

But all of this misses the point anyway. I don’t give a rat’s arse whether publishers ‘like’ my book or not. You’ve pointed out that you know the book is shit from reading a few paragraphs and so it must be.

But, you see, there are people out there who actually enjoyed the book, many hundreds: Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the U.S., Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Japan, Holland, Spain; the list goes on and on, all over the world there are people without your finely-honed appreciation of quality writing. If that is my readership then so be it. I can live with that.

I don’t understand why they (publishers/editors/spotty readers/agents) continue to believe they have to like it (or, to quote a post of mine on this very blog; get ‘excited’ about it). This erroneous attitude seems to be more about self-aggrandisement than good business practice.

What I need is to find a publisher with some business acumen. That doesn’t mean that I think that all publishers should instantly see the potential of The Samplist and break down my door with fat cheques in hand, but it does mean that with the paltry resources at my disposal and with the kind of resistance (demonstrated ably by your own good self) set against the Independent Novelist that selling many hundreds of books is a strong indicator of profit potential. If you then consider that my book has no blurbs on the cover (although I have more than twelve major blurbs—as people who read this blog are probably tired of hearing) and I have zero advertising budget that this easily translates into extremely strong sales potential when scaled.

I’m flattered that you think I’m an entrepreneur and I hope you’re right. (Although I’m somewhat confused that you believe that ‘entrepreneurial skills’ are what gets attention or good reviews from ‘mainstream review organs’. I expect the editor of the Times Literary Supplement thought that my business acumen meant that “The Samplist is saying something important...” At least give them the credit you afford yourself.) For the last ten years I have made a living from writing. I’m not rich but I do okay. I spend a major part of my life dreaming stories. I always have (it seems forced upon me) and I have trained myself to wake up often so that I do not cause any major accidents or accidental rumpuses.

I thought it was time to write the best of my stories down. The story of The Samplist popped into my head more then twenty years ago. Interestingly, many of the technologies that I had ‘invented’ in fiction actually came to pass in the intervening time so I took the opportunity to actually create the music of which I spoke in the book (in the intervening years I had, amongst other things, trained as a computer programmer).

I may be a shitty writer but I’m not mad. I have better things to do than write great long books that eat into my free time or engender arguments with my loved ones (I’m obsessive too, I might add, so I have to be careful about the projects I undertake). It’s much easier for me to work as a staffer on a newspaper or magazine or in the stock, commodity or currency markets or in a software company, and get a decent wage for a job well done.

I did not write the book in order to sit, fingers crossed, praying for a deal. I wrote the book because it’s a wonderful story and I knew how to write it; and I know my market (not literary types) but most importantly, I believed that I could not only get it published, but get it published with the treatment it deserves. Should a publisher arrive on my doorstep with a ‘deal’, it had better be the right ‘deal’ or there’s no deal. I do very well thanks and I‘ve better things to do than come in my pants just because a ‘name’ wants to ‘print it’.

Had I only had the slush pile to look forward to I would never have written it down. I earn good money from writing and I can play my stories in my head just as easily without sending out hundreds of begging letters thanks very much. (And in my head I don’t get wise asses butting in every couple of paragraphs to tell me that they’ve given me a ‘fair chance’ and I should shut up.)

But, since the technology existed to propel my novel from the slush I decided to write a hundred thousand words and program some music. I’m not insane. Without the music I have no hook. But know that nobody at all would have reviewed the book just because it had music, and know also that the only bad reviews I’ve so far received were from people who had not read the book from cover to cover (?). Luckily, just as I don’t give a rat’s arse about the opinions of publishers (either publish it or shut the fuck up) I don’t want to hear ‘reasons why' they won’t publish either. You get to editorialize if, and only if, you pay me. Pay me and you can shove it up your arse if you like. I’m a professional writer and I won’t pretend it doesn’t hurt (well, why can’t I make corny puns too?) but unsolicited trashings are simple cruelty and when I see them I shall fight back. I don’t go into every shop in the high street and ‘explain’ to the shopkeepers why I won’t buy curlers or washing powder or spark plugs, and I would never, in a million years, trash a novel in public that I had not read, particularly an Independently-Published novel.

Francis Ellen, author, wrote a book. Francis Ellen, Independent Novelist, sells the product he developed but the structure of the industry makes it almost impossibly difficult to distribute that product efficiently.

If Michael’s blog has become a shill for Independent Novelists then more power to him. For the Independent Novelist shall inherit the market. Long after The Samplist really is dead and buried the Independents will rule. It’s impossible to accurately predict the form of that rule but it is inevitable.

As Michael asked with the demise of Agfa: Could this happen to publishing? No. It’s already happened but they don’t know it. Major fiction publishing Is the Titanic; they’re dancing about at parties on their unsinkable ship while the passion of technologists and the passion of writers (for I believe all the passion in all of the ‘proper’ publishers in all of the world could not add up to a moment of the passion the ‘Independent Novelist’ requires to breathe life into a project) ensures their inevitable demise. All that matters now is which publishers will hire the right people to drag them into reality; which publishers will survive the onslaught? Who among them will suffer change?

I read some articles about how a big-time publisher had instructed her editors to find self-published novels but when I sent mine they simply read a couple of pages and agreed with you (in point of fact some of them enjoyed the pages but committees got in the way).

They missed the point; again, they seemed to think they’d been asked for their opinion; to find a self-published novel they felt passionate about, a novel they enjoyed reading (And I’m aware of how that sounds.) instead of finding a novel that sells.

But how do they find a novel that sells? What else is there but opinion? Where’s the science in this? Where are the ‘facts’ that I allude to (outside of my self-regard)? The publishers who make the best decisions are the ones who keep their noses and themselves out of it. No need for passion or excitement; having a pair of eyes that see is enough. The worst editors and agents superimpose some fuzzy view of what they’d ‘like to see’. I even sat with a dimbulb publisher and watched her get drunk while she offered me a contract to write the book that she believed there was ‘a market’ for. When I showed her the evidence that there was a market for a product called ‘The Samplist’ that already existed and had been proved she got snooty because of my descent into the world of products and markets of which she was the drunken master.

Of course this is where all the wiseacres tell me that if my book is so good then how come it’s not numero uno? Well, this is why: I need people like Michael, who garner enormous respect in this sector, to talk about my efforts and I need people like yourself to trash it without reading it so that people might go and ask for it at the local library so that they might make up their own minds and perhaps someone at a large house will see past the rude, arrogant commentator that is Francis Ellen, and past his crude writing that appeals more to the belly than the mind, and s/he might see that her company can generate profit whilst paying Mr. Ellen a substantial amount less than he currently earns because, Peter, I’m a writer. I’ve found that out about myself but I won’t gloat; I’ll just say that the publisher who gets Francis Ellen also gets some deep technological knowledge thrown into the mix that might even help to offset the storm that approaches. The larger record companies that managed to ‘ape’ independents in the music world did okay; and huge resources extend life.

My own agent worked at Penguin in New York during the time they turned down Catch-22 twice. I’m not saying The Samplist is Catch-22 (although a BBC producer said it was “Catch-22 with music instead of war…”). I’m not even saying that it isn’t, as you claim from scanning an excerpt from chapter 26 (must remember to take the number out), complete shit. What I am saying is that it already has a broad audience. It already engenders strong reactions. It already comes attached with priceless blurbs and quirky hooks upon which (and I used to be one) journos can hang any number of stories—outside of the Independent Novelist angle.

It is a fucking nap but when the major bookstore chains demand that a book be first ‘approved’ by ‘head office’ then they offer autonomy to their low-paid managers across the country with instructions to maximize revenues; these guys are liable to go out and build little Da Vinci Code mountains.

That’s where the current myopic strategies are leading. Massive bookshops stocking three or four books and sending the rest back.

Publishers should (must) get together and break this system otherwise they’ll all die. Waterstone’s will end up selling three books plus three copies of a few thousand others every year while the rest of us bypass the lot of them.

What the fuck do I know? What are my qualifications?

I understand markets. Get this; I’m about to be even more immodest, but I have to to tell the tale: I predicted the fall of the Asian currency market and I was fired for predicting the fall of the Russian ruble. If you don’t believe me find out my real name and check Reuters or old copies of The Guardian (wankers) or the Financial Times or The London Evening Standard (I used to be quoted on a daily basis when my job was writing strategies for investment banks) or any number of UK financial rags and international wires. My boss even made it impossible for me to work in the City because he didn’t like the idea that someone could actually predict things instead of just talking shit (and they were embarrassed that their ‘crack’ strategist sounded like “Rab C. Nesbitt”).

I live in a dreamworld. This has always been my handicap. But as I have got older I have learned that what was once a debilitating flaw can be used to generate both pleasure and profit. You might hate my writing and loathe my stories and you may find me impossibly arrogant and horribly crude but my stories are fun. They’re interesting and they’re not your stories.

As for the tag; Independent Novelist. Thank goodness for Michael’s insight that it is indeed ‘smart thinking’. It may be trying to get the tail to wag the dog but until we can hold our heads up against these cruel onslaughts we will forever remain under foot. We need Independents to break through and not forget from whence they came. We have to punch a hole in the wall and hold it open.

We should not be afraid any longer. We who aspire to write entertainments but eschew the soul-sucking apprenticeship of the television writer, or playwright or ‘young novelist’; if one of us breaks through, we mustn’t forget the future.

Good luck with your writing Peter. I know how hard it is to make a living in this game, but take it easy man. I neither asked for nor need your ‘fair chance’.

As to “Show mw one really good self-published book and I'll change my mind.” Check out the list above and take your pick.

I’ll take your word and assume your mind is changed.

Damn. 3,000 words. See what I mean?

Francis Ellen.

Peter L. Winkler said...

Dear Mr. Ellen:

I am not going to expend 3,000 words and the time it takes to create a point-by-point response to yours.

However, with your list of famous authors who self-published, you fall right into one of the classic and delusional fallacies of self-published writers.

I addressed this on my blog and am also providing a link to an astute examination of this subject for readers who would like to know more.

Here is what I wrote and then the link:

"You see, certain POD companies have placed full page ads on the inside front cover of Writers Digest magazine with old timey portraits of writers like Poe and also mention writers like Woolf and Walt Whitman with some tagline like, 'Some of the greatest writers published their own works.' This irritates me because it is misleading. This ignores the contexts surrounding these great writers' lives and their self-publishing experiences. It draws a false analogy between someone with a hopelessly bad fantasy novel and the work of some of the most exceptional writers who ever lived."

“Edgar Allan Poe was not yet 20 years old when he contracted with a Boston printer to do 40 copies of Tamerlane and Other Poems. In 1827, Poe sank most of his meager U.S. Army private's salary into the printing of this slim volume of 406 lines of poetry by ‘A Bostonian’ and priced at 12 1/2 cent. Poe mailed review copies to all the proper sources but his poems were totally unreviewed. Two magazines bothered to include the title in lists of recently published books.”

Here is a salient excerpt:

"Notice the most obvious logical problem with this listing: It implicitly extends the cachet of an author's complete oeuvre to one or two works. For example, the cachet of the Oz books (L. Frank Baum) seems to be extended to his chicken-farming manuals, which he did indeed self-publish. I've seen used-car salesmen who didn't display this slickness in false comparisons. It's rather like claiming that "street ball" is the best preparation for an NBA career and listing, say, Isaiah Thomas as an example. Sure, Isaiah played a little "street ball" before he came to prominence; nobody can really argue, though, that "street ball" is at the root of his success."

Two more points before I go. I never described your sample as "shit." I merely said it did not engage me.

Also, if your sales as an "independent writer" (a ludicrous term-what's the opposite, a dependent writer?) are so encouraging, why are you wasting your time and energy trying to smackdown one disagreeable opinion on a blog, unless in fact the success of your novel is so tenuous and fragile that you have to rush to its defense evry time it receives less han fullsome praise?

Peter Winkler

Peter L. Winkler said...

Dear Mr. Ellen:

One more quickie. I perused your list of famous writers again and saw Tom Clancy's name.

Clancy's The Hunt for Red October was published by the Naval Institute Press here in the United States. It was not self-published.

Peter Winkler

Peter L. Winkler said...

Dear Mr. Ellen:

Sorry. Couldn't resist. James Joyce's Ulysses was published by Sylvia Beach, proprietor of the legendary bookstore Shakespeare & Co.

Not self-published.

If your lack of research and credulity in simply perpetuating this already discredited list is indicative of your entire effort, woe betide thee, sir.

Still Sincerely,
Peter Winkler

Anonymous said...

I suggest we all get a free read of Chapter One. John Barlow.

John Barlow said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.